Monday, October 15, 2012

Japanese Grand Prix - October 7, 2012

While I was in Sri Lanka, I received a message from my friend Mike saying that he had an extra ticket for the Formula 1 race in Japan that coming Sunday. As it happened, I was going to be in Tokyo that weekend, although Mike didn't know that. He had received the tickets from a co-worker and had already asked all of his Tokyo-based buddies, none of whom could go on short notice. He was hoping that I would fly over from Singapore to join him for the race. Even that would have been a difficult trip to make but fortunately, I already had a flight ticket to Japan and Sunday was a free day for me, so the decision was pretty easy to make.

Early Sunday morning, I met Mike at Tokyo Station and we boarded the Shinkansen for Nagoya, the closest big city to Suzuka International Racing Course, home of the Japanese Grand Prix.

Suzuka Circuit

Built in 1962 as a test track for Honda Motors, Suzuka Circuit has evolved into one of the more challenging tracks on the Formula 1 calendar. It held its first F1 race in 1987 and for 20 years it was the site of either the penultimate or final race of the season, so the world championship was often decided here. Enthusiasts particularly remember the crashes between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost that decided the titles in 1989 (Prost) and 1990 (Senna), and Senna took the 1991 title here as well, his third and last world championship. In 2006 and 2007, the Japanese Grand Prix moved to Fuji as part of an agreement that was to annually alternate the race between the two venues, but this arrangement never transpired. Since 2008, the race has been held at Suzuka every year with no sign of leaving anytime soon. It takes place over three days in early October and during that time, Suzuka becomes the center of the racing world.

This is somewhat ironic because the track is rather far from civilization, lying about an hour from Nagoya. To get there, first take a train to Suzuka Circuit Iino station and then follow everyone along a narrow sidewalk for about 15 minutes to reach the 1st corner gate (above). As you approach, you will notice helicopters ferrying the drivers and other VIPs to the track (below).

Inside the circuit there is plenty of space, but many fans sit outside the grandstand, using groundsheets to mark their territory. This is because the sun shines into the main grandstand for most of the day, so to avoid getting a nasty burn, most fans relax near the eating area until the festivities begin. This does make walking through here a bit frustrating as there is no pattern determining where people choose to sit, so you have to pick your way around, being careful not to kick over any beers or young kids.

The shot above is taken at GP Square, just outside the main grandstand. Here you will find over a dozen concessions offering all sorts of Japanese and Western fare. Even better, prices are the same as you would pay outside the circuit. I tried a number of different items, with the nikuman stand (below) offering very tasty pork buns and gyoza. Yakitori, curry, noodles, rice bowls, even pineapple slices on a stick are also available. Definitely spend some time walking around to check all the options.

Due to the crowds, there is a very organized system for queuing. On the ground you will see white lines tracing a back-and-forth path in front of each concession (below); simply line up behind the last person here and follow the lines on the ground. Even if you don't understand, there is somebody there to kindly explain it to you.

Beer is available on tap for 500 yen, or you can visit the Lawson convenience store underneath the main grandstand, which sells chilled cans without any markup, and no limit as far as I could tell. There are tables that are safely hidden from the afternoon sun where you can stand and eat in a comfortable setting, and perhaps engage in some people watching as well.

There are also plenty of souvenir stands selling merchandise from each constructor as well as the more popular drivers, such as Jensen Button. Most fans had one piece of F1 paraphernalia on their person, and some went all out, dressing from head to toe in their favourite car's colours.

There is a theme park here that includes a Ferris wheel which seemed to be popular, although I did not bother to check it out given our limited time. I would suggest that you spend all three days here if you can; one day is not enough to see the entire venue, which is very large indeed.

After the race, returning to Nagoya was easier and faster than expected. Again, brilliant organization was the key. As you approach the station, you are forced into a queue depending on which direction you are going. For those going south, there is no waiting, but for those heading north to Nagoya, each queue is dedicated to one regular train. Before the next train approaches, everybody in the queue for that particular train is allowed onto the platform. The train arrives, everybody boards, and the train departs, all in an orderly fashion. Then the next queue is allowed onto the platform for the next train, just like clockwork. If you are in a hurry, there are also express trains that save a few minutes but for which special tickets are required. These can be booked in advance, but you then need to take that specific train. Therefore, you must avoid the regular queue and move into the special “express” queue. It might sound confusing, but once you get there, it is easy to figure out what to do and if you are stuck, somebody will be glad to help. This remarkable efficiency that gets crowds moving is one of the things that I miss about Japan.

Overall, I was happy to be able to add Suzuka to my visited venue list. I wasn't much of a racing fan while I lived in Japan, but have begun to appreciate the sport quite a bit now and am thankful to Mike  and his busy friends for allowing me a chance to see F1 in one of its grandest tracks.

The Race

The tickets we had were some of the best,  right in the middle of the grandstand with a face value of 68,000 yen ($850). From here, we could see pit lane and the start and finish lines, but very little racing occurs down this stretch.

Still, the two hours or so before the race is one in which the buzz grows by the minute. First, the drivers parade is conducted, as each racer is driven in a classic car around the track to greet their fans (that's Button above).

Then fans watch the cars being assembled in their garages before being wheeled out to the track. Then the drivers suit up as the mechanics make their last second adjustments (above) leading to the warm-up lap. Below is Bruno Senna preparing to run his lap while his team stands aside.

Finally the race. By the time 24 cars roar towards Turn 1 (below), the entire grandstand is awash with anticipation, and only after the cars disappear between the pit building do fans finally relax, only to be brought to their feet again a minute later as the leaders emerge from the final turn to race down the main straightaway, the first of 53 laps on the day.

However, that first lap is usually the highlight of the afternoon and the race itself is often anticlimactic as there is little passing at the front after that. That was the case here as well as championship points leader Fernando Alonso spun out of the race going into the first turn and Romain Grosjean bumped Mark Webber at turn 2. Once all the dust cleared, pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel had the lead and he had no trouble keeping lead, taking the race to close within 4 points of Alonso. The shot below is of the race position after 14 laps, with Vettel leading local favourite Kamui Kobayashi while Felipe Massa ran third. These were the three podium finishers, although Massa overtook Kobayashi for second by the end of the race.

It was actually a pretty exciting finish for Kobayashi (below), who beat Button by just half a second to net the first podium of his career, which made the Japanese fans very happy indeed.

The presentation was held just across from the grandstand, and you can see Kobayashi holding his 3rd place trophy while Vettel applauds. Great stuff, and perhaps enough to get Kobayashi a contract for next season.

There is nothing quite like F1 and the race in Japan may be the most interesting of all. If you happen to be in Japan in early October and looking for something to do, consider a trip to Suzuka for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Next Up

Things have hit a lull here as my travel schedule settles down. I'm off to Brunei for an upcoming long weekend but there is nothing to see there in the world of sports. Then I'll be visiting the Philippines where there is some MMA (PXC is the Asian equivalent of UFC) and basketball available so I'll have to choose one of those two events. The following week will see me in India during the Ranji Trophy, but I'm not sure if there'll be a match in the city I will be visiting. Even Singapore has a few events coming up, including the final of the Singapore Cup next weekend, the Singapore Rugby 7s during the first weekend of November, the Singapore Open golf tournament on November 10th and 11th, and the Clash of Continents tennis tournament at the end of the month. So despite not being back in North America, I will be watching some sports and updating this blog. Check back on occasion to see what's going on.



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